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Religion moves into the high-tech world

Other religious gadgets

• The ‘Bible Stick' — Originally designed for military personnel serving in war zones, the flash drive features digital audio with dramatized recordings of the New Testament. More than 234,000 devices have been distributed worldwide, according to Faith Comes By Hearing, an Albuquerque, N.M., outreach that handles them.

• The El Sajjadah prayer mat — During the holy period of Ramadan, devout Muslims pray five times a day. They are supposed to face the city of Mecca when doing so. But what if you don't know what direction Mecca is? Soner Ozenc believes he's come up with an answer — an illuminated prayer mat. The mat is fitted with a built-in digital compass that lights up when it is pointed in the direction of the Saudi city.

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By Chris Ramirez
Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, 9:07 p.m.

Need to go to confession? There's an app for that.

A $1.99 iPhone application created by three entrepreneurs in South Bend, Ind., moves the Catholic rite of baring your soul to a priest in a darkened confessional booth to your cellphone.

And that's not all.

Pastors stream their sermons online; rabbis use websites to track their students' progress toward b'nai mitzvah; and Muslims turn to electronic compasses and GPS technology so they know which way to face during daily prayers.

Even the Dalai Lama maintains an active Twitter feed.

It all means that worship is going high-tech.

“It's the world we live in now,” says the Rev. Dr. Ronald Cole-Turner, a professor of theology and ethics at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in East Liberty.

Gone are the days when going to church meant lugging around Bibles with dog-earred, time-yellowed pages. Today, the Word of God has gone byte-sized — megabyte, that is.

Hundreds of iPhone apps allow worshippers to upload Bible quotes, Torah-chanting practice and Buddhist prayer wheels. Ryan Kreager developed the “Confession App” with two friends — together they make up an app development company called Little i Apps. The app, he says, is meant to remind Catholics of their rite of visiting a priest to unburden themselves, not to replace it.

“If you're emotionally hooked to a device … why not be hooked spiritually, as well?” asks Kreager, a Notre Dame doctoral candidate.

The Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Christian Booksellers Association, which represents 1,700 Christian stores, franchises and religious suppliers, estimates that Americans spend $4.6 billion each year on gadgets, downloads, apps and other products they feel enhance observance of their faith.

Jasmine Kashkoush grew up in a Muslim home in Allentown, and continues to practice her faith while studying neuroscience and math at the University of Pittsburgh. She and roughly 1.6 billion other devout Muslims worldwide pray five times a day, and are supposed to face Mecca when doing so.

She gets help from an Adhan Alarm app, which plays the Arabic call for prayer, and from iQuran, another app that makes the entire Muslim holy book accessible on her phone.

“It's really helpful, as it makes sure I don't neglect my prayers,” says Kashkoush, 19. “With smartphones these days, there's apps for everything.”

So, are believers getting geekier, or are more geeks becoming believers?

Yes on both counts, says Cole-Turner, whose position at the seminary focuses on developments in science and technology.

And the clergy is struggling to catch up. Some seminaries and divinity schools have had to add virtual-classroom instruction and other tech courses while training the next generation of aspiring ministers.

“There are those who think that with technology we may have lost some one-on-one connectivity,” Cole-Turner says. “But we're doing the working of the church ... and what God calls us to do, whether it's face-to-face or online.”

In some cases, technology has helped actually create places of worship.

Joshua and Nicole Bilsky say they weren't able to find a church that met their spiritual needs.

So, in January, the West Mifflin couple took to social-media sites to build their own worship hall, with no money or other backing.

They used Facebook and Twitter to publicize and sign up members, and Craigslist to find a minister and band members.

The first service, in September, drew about 150 people to the church, which meets in Wilson Christian Academy on Clairton Road.

Here, the lyrics to hymns, controlled by a laptop, are flashed on the walls. It's also common for cellphones to pop up when the Rev. Thomas Ondrea quotes scripture.

“People walk in the door with cellphones that have more power than home computers did about five or 10 years ago,” says Joshua Bilsky, 32, an information-technology manager. “People are simply more comfortable with technology now. And in churches, we need to find a way to leverage that feeling positively.”

Chris Ramirez is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-380-5682.



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